But is it Art?

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Near Cardiff  2009

It is an often heard tenet that says “digital manipulation software cannot save what is a crappy photograph to start with”.

With some time on my hands, I thought I might explore Nik Software’s Silver Effects Pro further. I had mostly just used the presets, and due to spending a lot of time learning to work with Adobe Camera Raw and non destructive work flows as part of my studies, I had pretty much forgotten about it.

I decided I would revisit some photographs that I took a few years ago in Wales, some of which were a bit ordinary in their original form.

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I had quite a lot of fun getting to know the various settings in Silver Effects Pro which are quite extensive and, to my eye, rather sophisticated. It really is a case where what can be achieved is only limited by one’s imagination.

I do occasionally like to emulate the look of black and white film (Tri-X was always a favourite) which is what I was aiming for here.

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Cardiff Castle 2009

So, I find myself asking myself ‘have I managed to save a crappy photo simply by applying some digital manipulation?’

I think the answer to this is something like, ‘well if I were shooting exactly the same scene on B&W film I would probably have ended up with something very similar.’

Of course retouching out the people in the scene would not have been anywhere near as simple.

Another question I think pertinent is, ‘what about the integrity of the image?’ (does it matter?!)

And, of course, there’s the age old dilemma (well, as old as photography anyway) “is it Art?”

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Near Cardiff  2009

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Near Cardiff  2009

(Some viewers may wonder why, as this is a post about Black and White, that the images within contain colour. It is because I create a B&W image in Silver Effects which becomes a layer in Photoshop which I then blend with the original colour layer.)

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Oils ain’t Oils (no more)

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Peter Garrett 1983

For a number of years I worked for Roadrunner, an Adelaide-based rock music paper. It was a great time for photographing all the major shows that came through town as there was not the ‘three songs and you’re out’ rule that applies today.

I was a big Midnight Oil fan – I believed them to be one of the greatest live bands anywhere. They rocked!

I have just read Oils drummer Rob Hirst’s highly entertaining book, Willie’s Bar & Grill: A rock ‘n’ roll tour of North America in the Age of Terror.

Midnight Oil had a tour of the US all ready to go when the horror of 9/11 occurred. They decided to go ahead with the schedule and Hirst’s observations of the US at that time are very insightful and quite poignant.

There is also a great deal of humour. Describing Las Vegas, Hirst says “it’s like the audience from the Jerry Springer Show let loose on the set of a James Bond movie”.

Midnight Oil are, sadly, no more. Peter Garrett found a new career in politics but the remaining band members, along with Brian Ritchie  (ex Violent Femmes) as replacement bass player, formed The Break, a surf instrumental band.

We saw them play at the Espy in Melbourne. They not only rocked, they were having an absolute ball, all of them smiling away with Rob Hirst grinning the most (as you’d expect a drummer in a surf band would!)…

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Midnight Oil, Arkaba Hotel Adelaide 1980

 

Painting v Photography?

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Oodnadatta Track 2005

We visited the TarraWarra Museum of Art  on Australia day to view Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart paintings 1940-2011. I’m trying to remember the last time I was so affected by an exhibition.

I left the gallery with two burning questions on my mind.

Firstly, how is it that I can be so moved, not just by the interesting subject matter, the beautiful capture of light and the superb compositions, but by the minute detail within the compositions? Why is it that the placement of one small element in relation to another within a small area of the canvas can almost bring me to tears?

The complete and total perfectness of just where a line might dissect another brings me incredible joy. I know that when I produce a photograph in which I feel the composition is pretty much as good as I could wish for, I get a feeling not just of great satisfaction, but something that is almost spiritual.

Putting on my amateur psychologist’s hat, I might speculate that having grown up in a world in which I felt there was no order at all, that I seek perfect order within art and feel a great deal of emotion and satisfaction when I find it.

The second question is an old one and one which one of my tutors at RMIT, photographer Emma Phillips, put very well when she asked students: “Since the camera has the ability to capture the ‘real’, why do we so enjoy paintings that enter this territory? What, if anything, does it say about our reverence for the painted work over the photographed work?”

At the time, I didn’t really have an answer for this. These are questions that have perplexed me for a long time. Often, after visiting an exhibition of paintings that I enjoyed, I would ask myself, why bother? Even though photography as art has made terrific inroads (more so overseas than here in Australia) I still can’t help but feel that, as a general rule, people don’t take photography as art  seriously enough.

The fact that I sometimes ask myself “why bother?” certainly says something about my own reverence for painting however much I believe photography to be a powerful and important medium.

Painters like Jeffrey Smart, through superb draftsmanship and amazing talent, produce work of a ‘real’ nature where they are able to construct their compositions as they wish from scratch. A photographer working with similar subjects as Smart, however, doesn’t have the luxury of having complete control over all the elements within the photograph (unless they wish to spend uncountable hours in Photoshop. No thanks!)

Even moving about and placing the camera in the best position for a ‘perfect’ composition can be fraught with difficulties. (Gee, if only the traffic on this freeway would go away so I can set up in the middle lane where the power poles will be perfectly aligned for my masterpiece…)

Anyway, having said all of that, I am reminded of the adage “comparisons are odious”. Comparing painting with photography is more than likely just going to cause one to go around and around in circles.

For me, I shall continue to believe in what I do as a photographer and look out for those occasional ‘perfect’ compositions that will give me goose bumps when I view them.

“I just love black and white . . .”

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God Is Everywhere  2012

Pre digital I had a strong preference for shooting black and white film. There were a few reasons for this, the main one being that I felt I had a lot of control over the final product. Through careful exposure and development I would ideally produce a good negative from which to print in the darkroom. Here, of course, is where the magic happened. Good choice of paper and chemistry, cropping, dodging, burning in, toning and all the little tricks one could apply to interpret the negative and, hopefully, produce something of substance, and even perhaps, beauty.

With colour, of course, I didn’t have this kind of control. I did shoot a fair amount of colour transparency (slide film) but often felt that all I was doing was producing ‘pretty pictures’. I would many times have an image in my minds eye of what I would like to be able to see, as a colour print, but the limitations of the materials available at the time wouldn’t allow it.

I always found it amusing that when I would tell people that I liked to work with black a white, they would often respond with ” ooh, I just love black and white!”. I have a theory about this and it is simply, that a monotone photograph is a lot easier to ‘read’ and to understand than a colour photograph. During the seventies and eighties, there were a number of photographers working in colour whose images I greatly admired. Stephen Shore and Joel Meyerowitz were two in particular who demonstrated to me how sophisticated colour photography could be and, in the process, convinced me that I was better off sticking with black and white!

I don’t know that my understanding of colour has improved any, but with the coming of the digital age working with it has completely opened up for me. I love it. Being able to pre-visualise an image, in colour, and having the tools to create it, is for me, the marvel of digital photography. Even worth all the pain of having to learn a whole new bunch of tricks (and we are talking about a fairly old dog here!).

Still, black and white still has great appeal for me. There are some photographs that just scream out for it.

The rise of ‘Phoneographers’

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I have this thing about phone cameras. I try not to use mine. Maybe I’m being a bit too precious, but it’s like I don’t want to end up taking what I might consider to be a great photograph but, due to the small file size, feel that I can’t really do anything with it. I suspect it has something to do with my age and the era in which I developed my photographic skills.

Of course many would disagree with me on this. I am aware that there is a whole movement of ‘Phoneographers’ out there producing nice pics. I see all the apps at work and am particularly amused by the amount of phone pics I see that have the appearance of being made with a toy camera. Personally, I’d rather use a real Holga or Diana.

However . . .

Having said all that, I was at the tennis at Kooyong for the first time last week and was really taken by the atmosphere. A great venue with lots of history. I enjoyed the day but couldn’t help but wonder what the atmosphere would have been like forty years ago when the Rolling Stones played there. I just had to take a photo but didn’t have a camera with me so, out came my phone . . .

Furthermore . . .

I do see a lot of photographs taken with phone cameras that I really like. One of my face book friends, Sam Oster, takes beautiful pics with hers. I recommend visiting her website, there may not be any phone pics there but her work is great and well worth a look.

Digital v Film

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Mansfield Cemetery 2011

Yesterday I had an interesting discussion with a photographer who told me that after exploring digital photography, she has decided to stick to shooting film. Good on her!

This discussion led me to think about my own transition from working with film to shooting digitally. After giving up my darkroom, I continued to use film for some time having the negatives processed and then scanning them. Once I bought and set up a top of the range printer I decided this was definitely the way to go. I was very happy with the prints I began to produce. In fact, I found that when a print would come out of the printer, I would get a buzz that was very similar to the one I would get when I produced a good print in the darkroom. Also, of course, I was now able to produce my own high quality colour prints.

It was then only a matter of time before I went the whole way and bought a DSLR. I have to admit to going through a kind of grieving process. The thought that I would no longer return from a road trip, get in the darkroom, process my film and eagerly open the developing tank to see what I had, kind of saddened me.

I think that this grieving process was essential for me to go through so that I could move ahead in the wonderful new world of digital photography.

However . . .

I do still love the charm of film.

Maybe this is the reason I like using toy cameras so much. They keep me in touch with the way I practiced photography for close to thirty years.

I just can’t imagine giving up on film completely.

Texas

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I am currently reading James A. Michener’s ‘Texas’ which I am enjoying very much, although at 1096 pages I suspect it’s going to take awhile to complete!

After reading a chapter entitled ‘The Mission’ I was inspired to revisit the photographs I took of San Jose Mission in San Antonio which we visited in 2009.

Reading Michener’s book has given me a new perspective on this magnificent site bringing its history to life for me.

I very much hope to get the opportunity to revisit Texas some time soon and maybe see some of the other Missions around San Antonio.